According to the Bible, several ways exist to classify sinners. First and foremost, we can simply state the universal truth. All men are sinners! Both the wicked and the saint alike! Romans 3:23 sums it up clearly, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The saint has been forgiven his sin, but as Luther stated he is still simul justus et peccator – at the same time righteous and a sinner. In what follows, the church must not forget this universal truth.
However, the Scriptures do make other distinctions regarding sinners. They can be labeled according to the types of sin they commit, such as adulterers, liars, murderers, etc. (I Cor. 6:9-10; Rev. 22:15). Also, the ungodly can be classified with respect to their disobedience to the Word, where they can resist it immediately, receive it joyfully at first then fall away, or let it be choked out over a period of time (Matt. 13:3-9; 18-23). Another way to view sinners, somewhat akin to Dante’s hellish circles in his Inferno, is to think of them with respect to the degree of depravity they have reached. All men are sinners, yet people to various degrees become hardened and fall further into the depths of sin, with some even reaching the point of no return, i.e. the unpardonable sin (Rom. 1:21-27; Matt. 12:31-32). Each of these means of viewing sinners has its place in gospel ministry.
Yet a broader, two-fold means exists in the Scriptures for categorizing sinners that is very helpful in knowing how to relate to them. Simply stated, sinners can be seen in their relationship to the covenant. We can see sinners either as ignorant of the covenant or rebellious to the covenant. In other words, those ignorant of the covenant are people who do not know the gospel and have no true experience with the church so they remain outside of the faith. However, the ones who are covenantally rebellious have been under the knowledge of the gospel for a considerable season of life, have professed faith in Christ, and have enjoyed the fellowship of the church, but then have chosen to turn from what they have experienced.
The Bible clearly tells us our ministry to these two types of sinners is to be handled differently. Yet because ignorant and rebellious sinners can look similar in their activities, often the church treats them alike. Unfortunately, not only does this create confusion and hardship in ministry but, even more consequentially with respect to eternity, can keep a needed dimension of the gospel from being heard by those who need it most.
To those who are ignorant of the covenant, or lost as described by Jesus (Luke 19:10), our basic ministry posture is to seek them out, befriend them, serve them, and win them to the gospel (I Cor. 9:19-23). Jesus ate with the tax gatherers and sinners to the point he was accused of being their friend (Luke 5:30; 7:34). Certainly one has to be careful in seeking to bring salvation to the ignorant that he does not begin to be corrupted by them and sin with them in the process (Psalm 1:1-2; Prov. 13:20; Jude 22-23). Yet, with the proper exercise of wisdom, one can and must have the general posture toward the covenantally ignorant of engagement and receptivity of friendship.
However, the church’s stance toward the covenantally rebellious is basically to be the opposite and is the concern of this post. Those who are in the church who spurn the gospel, after sufficient warning and pleading for repentance as described in Matthew 18:15-20 has taken place, are to experience resistance and removal of fellowship by the people of God. Paul made this distinction clear to the church at Corinth regarding the issue of sinners committing immorality:
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? (I Cor. 5:9-12)
Similarly, for those who rebel against church leadership and bring division in the church, Paul says in Titus 3:10-11, “Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.” Many other examples could be given (I Cor. 5:3-7; II Thes. 3:6-6; Heb. 6:4-8; I John 2:18-19).
Making the distinction between these two types of sinners, and treating them as the Lord directs, is important for the church. Not only will it bring honor to the name of the Lord, insure faithfulness to the Word of God by the church, and ultimately promote the peace and purity of the church, but will send the difficult but needed message to those wandering from Christ that separating themselves now could lead to an eternal separation. Thus, helping them not only to hear but feel the warning is ultimately issuing a faithful gospel call to come back.